Musings about Ready Player One

Ready Player One is a recent novel by Ernest Cline. It’s about a contest to find an easter egg in OASIS, the novel’s uber MMO that has absorbed all MMOs, games, shopping, Internet et cetera. Right before dying, the bachelor, shut-in, and stuck in his childhood in the 80s creator of OASIS created a huge easter egg, and made a contest of solving the easter egg. Whoever won got his fortune, which was the largest in the world by far. It takes the world some 7 years to solve it, and the book is about the solving. It gets almost all of its allure, unabashedly, from 80s pop culture (although this extends to 70s and 90s in parts), and the plot itself is basically about how the crazy megabillionaire’s own nostalgia for his past has affected the rest of the world in their search for the easter egg that will grant them his megabillions. So, that’s the plot, but what’s interesting is the nostalgia.

I use the term ‘nostalgia’ here rather loosely though as it isn’t exactly nostalgia. Or rather, it isn’t nostalgia for everybody. For the author it probably is nostalgia, for the reader it might be, for the diegetic creator of the game it was, but for the players it was entirely second hand. As egg hunters (“gunters”) they’re obsessed with 80s pop culture as it is assumed to be (and in fact is) the key to solving the easter egg. It was never their culture, and this is doubly sad as their own culture, as the book is so quick in its distopia to point out, is dead and escaping in virtual worlds that comprise OASIS. The real world sucks, so they get out, but the virtual worlds (at least the ones visited in the book) are completely filled with 80s nostalgia. They’ve lost their past and present and instead live in somebody else’s past. It’s a bit trippy in some ways. It makes me wonder about whose nostalgia it is now. By ‘now’ I mean now now, outside in the real world where remakes and demakes and minecraft and the SC2 lost viking minigame splash screen are all present.

The other thing I can’t help but think about is the large number of environmentally distopian novels I’ve read recently. While Wendy Chun has written about sci-fi as the never coming future I wonder if that holds with the more scientifically frightening science fiction like Oryx and Crake and Ready Player One that are really all based on the belief that we’re screwed because of a built up fucking over of the planet.

“Space Invaders”

To who or what does “Space Invaders” appeal? It’s a simple question, yet also completely unanswerable. First, one must ask which space invaders? Are the capitals important? Do I refer to the 1978 arcade box? The individual sprites coming down eternally? The nihilistic fight that is playing a game that cannot be won? Or perhaps it’s one of the related text/objects? Perhaps its the Retro Sabotage flash game that shows this impossibility? Or one of the many web, or portable remakes, perhaps Taito’s 2009 Infinity Gene? Or might I be referring to the street/game artist of the same name who places the pixelated characters in city spaces around the world? In a simple answer to what should be a simple question, I’ll simply say I refer to all at once, because that’s how such intertextuality works. There is an original, but it may not be the important point. They all, after a certain point, refer to each other.

This meandering began when a friend mentioned photographing invaders. As she studies street art the first guess is that she was talking about the artist and said artist’s creations, but when I then went to find some sort of image to confirm this (searching for invaders without effort; catching aliens by picture). I opened an entirely different can of worms, or, to follow what soon will be an unwieldy metaphor, a new wave lining up at the top of the screen. However, at the end of this meandering I realized that it’s all the same interwoven meaning.

Invader’s website has a global listing of invaded cities. They are places where works exist, but San Diego, the city in which I live and my friend was catching aliens, is not there. One answer is that the site has not been updated, but it will be soon. Following this meaning the list becomes a sort of status. Which cities are good enough to be graced by the artist’s work.

People on the Yelp forum discussing the artwork certainly point to this: whether the work is fake or not (another answer to San Diego’s lack of appearance on the list), how San Diego has gained this honor (the street art exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art), and that the city has become “bona fide, betches” (Yelp user). Status is certainly tied up in the meaning of Invader’s space invaders. However, there are other meanings of the work: the game, nostalgia, migration and aliens. All of these are tied in the work and the general resurface and re-imagining of meaning.

Space Invaders holds a special place in the 20-40 year old generations as one of the early cabinet games of the golden age of gaming. Like most golden age games such as Donkey Kong, there are memorable characters, but unlike Donkey Kong‘s Jump Man, who was reborn as Mario, Space Invaders‘ player character is rather unmemorable. While Space Invaders had sequels, they are barely remembered. It’s hard to start a franchise when the plot and player are destined for death. However, Space Invaders did start a genre. Hundreds of shooter games followed with equally unmemorable player characters, but ironically these generally had forgettable enemies as well. What Space Invaders did was create a long chain of names, signifiers (1942, R-Type, Gradius, etc), that all pointed back to the original signified, Space Invaders, and its memorable, invading army.

The game has thus remained in cultural memory, to be sparked with each further generic horse beating, as the eternal good fight against an unnamed (but memorable) enemy. However, the past few years have brought a different resurgence. From genre and allusion back to direct reference. The retro/nostalgic trend of the 2000s has brought with it hosts of remakes and demakes, remixes and repositionings. André the Giant becomes a poster-boy for frat boys, Obama spells hope for the masses, beautifully relaxing Mario Clouds float by on a hacked ROM, and Space Invaders goes contemporary political commentary with its pixellated enemy sprites.

Invader’s invaders work on multiple levels. They refer back to the nostalgia of the 1970s and its memorable characters, but they also tie into fears of global migration/movement (invasion if you will) prevalent at the current moment. The invaders are aliens, the same as the “illegals” in the U.S. news and political media. They come in, attack, kill, take over the planet, and of course steal jobs, but they’re so memorable, bordering on cute. Wait, that didn’t come out right, or did it?

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries human movement over borders has reached an unprecedented high if only because the borders have become more pronounced. An equal amount of movement has always existed, small distances, long distances when borders were less national and less guarded, but not as they are now: pronounced, fenced, and racial/nationalistic. What might have been normal movement has become illegal border crossing, and those who cross become illegals. Aliens. Invaders.

Invader’s work is about merging the current fear of the illegal (in play with the original game, all of the generic follows and almost all games in general – particularly the link to Arabs/aliens in most modern FPS games is troubling and obvious) with the loving nostalgia of the past. People like these invaders, but it goes a step further. As the Yelpers demonstrated, invaders make a city. Where at one point it was a skyscraper, a sports team, or a museum, now it is an invader. A city has made it when it has been invaded.

But am I talking about space invaders or illegals right now? Are they?

  • Invader. Space Invaders. Accessed online June 17, 2010. <>
  • Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Viva la Revolucion: A Dialogue with Urban Landscape. Accessed online June 17, 2010. <>
  • Retro Sabotage: A Strange Kind of Love. Target: Space Invaders: Invasion. <>
  • Yelp. “Space Invader San Diego.” Accessed online June 17, 2010. <>

Thoughts on DAC – Faux 8 Bit

I got a pleasant surprise on the first day of the recent Digital Arts and Culture conference at Irvine when I attended the Brett Camper’s paper talk “Fake Bit: Imitation and Limitation.” You see, it’s the first time I’ve encountered somebody else dealing with these new/old games.

What I’ve been discussing as remakes and demakes and framing around repetition, nostalgia, and history he discussed in terms of camp, revivalism while focusing on faux 8 bit game production and in particular, La Mulana, which was initially an imitation MSX game for the PC and is now being remade as WiiWare.